PREP FOOTBALL: Marshall takes down Luverne
LUVERNE -- Running the ball for 346 yards on 43 carries behind a large, athletic and experienced offensive line Wednesday night, the Marshall Tigers scored three touchdowns on big plays in the first quarter and earned an impressive 41-14 victory over the Luverne Cardinals in a highly-anticipated Southwest Conference high school football showdown between a pair of undefeated and state-ranked area powers at Cardinal Field.
Wednesday's matchup was somewhat of a rarity featuring two unbeaten teams playing each other in the regular-season finale, as both Marshall (ranked sixth in Class AAAA) and Luverne (ranked fifth in Class AA) came into the contest at 7-0 overall and 5-0 in the league -- making this the unofficial conference championship game in a unique fashion.
Marshall (8-0, 6-0) repeats as the league champion after also capturing the crown with a perfect 6-0 record last season, while Luverne (7-1, 5-1) finishes as a solid runner-up. The Cardinals, who tied with both Marshall and Jackson County Central for the conference championship in 2010 with identical 5-1 marks, won the league title with undefeated records of 6-0 in both 2007 and 2008, as well.
"Luverne is a very good football team and has a winning program year in and year out," Marshall head coach Terry Bahlmann said after the game. "We knew what to expect coming down here, and we had to play a complete game to come away with a win. It is a great accomplishment for our guys to win the conference championship and complete an undefeated regular season."
Colton Citrowske (13 carries for 137 yards, one touchdown), Rhett Struve (eight carries for 113 yards, two touchdowns) and Austin Saugstad (nine carries for 65 yards) spearheaded Marshall's smash-mouth running style, which netted 214 yards on the ground in the first quarter alone.
"Our offensive line is the strength of our football team and allowed us to break a couple of long runs early in the first quarter," summed up Bahlmann. "We gave our running backs a chance to find some open space and they did a great job of creating a few things on their own with their athletic ability."
Meanwhile, Luverne struggled to keep control of the ball for most of the first half and into the second half. The Cardinals turned the ball over three times and failed to recover an onside kick by the Tigers, finishing with just 206 total yards of offense (148 rushing, 58 passing).
"This game went about how I thought it would go," Luverne head coach Todd Oye said. "Marshall is obviously a tremendous football team and is so disciplined and physical up front. They are deep and talented at every position and they executed much better than we did."
Eli Dooyema led Luverne with 61 yards rushing on seven carries, and Brett Heronimus went 3-for-5 passing for 36 yards. Skyler Wenninger and Kendall Meyer each scored a touchdown for the Cardinals, who were playing without senior standout Alex Weis due to a knee injury.
"We had a couple of nice drives in the first half and gave ourselves a chance to stay in the game," Oye said. "But we couldn't stop Marshall from running the ball, as they got some momentum with a few big plays and took advantage of our mistakes to gain control of the game."
Marshall jumps out to first-quarter leads of 14-0 and 20-8
Marshall started the game with the ball and drove 74 yards on eight plays -- into a hard-blowing wind -- to strike with the first points at the 8:22 mark of the opening period.
Saugstad (quarterback), Struve and Citrowske alternated churning out positive yardage for the Tigers. Citrowske ripped off a 26-yard burst on the third play of the series, and Struve scampered for a 25-yard touchdown surge to get Marshall on the board -- leading 7-0 after Tanner Cirks booted the extra point through the uprights.
The Tigers kept the momentum on their side by recovering a Cardinals' fumble on the first play of the ensuing possession and then immediately handing the ball off to Struve for a nifty 57-yard touchdown jaunt.
Cirks again kicked the PAT, lifting Marshall to a 14-0 lead with 7:50 on the clock.
"We got off to a great start, which is big playing on the road," Bahlmann said. "The wind was a major factor in this game, but we were able to score going against it three times in the first quarter."
Luverne, with the wind at its back, answered with a 10-play, 54-yard scoring drive to trim the margin to six points. The series was aided by a pass interference penalty and was sustained by a number of key plays -- including eight-yard runs from Wenninger and Andrew Verhey, as well as a 13-yard screen pass from Heronimus to Wenninger along the left sideline.
Heronimus then pitched to Wenninger for a six-yard touchdown run on an option play to the right. Wenninger returned the favor by firing a strike to Heronimus wide open in the end zone for the two-point conversion, pulling the Cardinals to within 14-8 with 3:28 remaining.
However, Marshall responded and went 89 yards on just five plays. Saugstad -- who was also 2-for-5 passing for 33 yards -- and Struve each had an eight-yard run before Citrowske slipped several tackles and snapped off a 58-yard touchdown dash.
Luverne blocked the extra point, but Marshall had a 20-8 cushion with 1:04 to go in the first quarter.
The Tigers then recovered an onside kick and quickly extended the gap to 27-8 with a one-yard touchdown run (Cirks PAT good) by Brock Baumgarn with 10:44 left in the second quarter. Saugstad (32 yards) and Struve (13 yards) had big runs to set up that scoring plunge.
Luverne came back with a nice drive going into the wind, moving from its own 20-yard line to Marshall's 25 before Baumgarn intercepted a pass. A pair of pass completions -- Wenninger to Heronimus for 13 yards, and Heronimus to Wyatt Aubert for 15 yards -- sparked the Cardinals that time, as did some tough interior running from Verhey and Dooyema.
Marshall drove for one final scoring opportunity as time was winding down in the second quarter, but Luverne held and forced a 42-yard field-goal attempt by Cirks that landed short and wide to the right -- keeping the score at 27-8 at halftime.
Tigers build 41-8 bulge with a pair of third-quarter scores
Luverne had the ball to begin the second half, but another fumble on the very first play was again recovered by Marshall.
Cirks scooped up the loose ball and returned it 16 yards for a touchdown before tacking on the PAT, suddenly putting the Tigers up 34-8 just 17 seconds into the third quarter.
Cirks continued to make all kinds of things happen with a quarterback sack on Luverne's ensuing drive, forcing a punt after a three-and-out.
Baumgarn then capped a short Tigers' series (29 yards on eight plays) with a three-yard touchdown dive. Cirks was accurate with the extra point, increasing Marshall's lead to 41-8 at the 5:59 mark.
Luverne was unable to put together a countering drive, and the score remained the same until Meyer found the end zone with an eight-yard touchdown run. The PAT was no good, completing the game's scoring at 41-14 with 2:51 to go in the fourth quarter.
Dooyema snapped off a 37-yard run down the left sideline to help set up that final score, while Meyer also completed a 10-yard pass to Logan Norman on a slant pattern over the middle.
"We didn't get much going in the second half, and give all the credit to Marshall," Oye said. "We did what we could and got beat by a better team. We had a very good regular season and now shift our focus to the playoffs."
Luverne will likely open the Section 3AA tournament Tuesday at home, while Marshall will also play at home Tuesday to begin the Section 2AAAA tournament.
Marshall 20 7 14 0 -- 41
Luverne 8 0 0 6 -- 14